Empathy is of the essence: Order On The Go by Erwin Shah Ismail

Singaporean performer and playwright Erwin Shah Ismail shares stories of food delivery riders in the promenade theatre piece, Order On The Go, which will see audiences moving around Kampong Gelam. Erwin hopes to make people more aware of their experiences, and calls for more empathy for these essential workers.

Singaporean performer and playwright Erwin Shah Ismail shares stories of food delivery riders in the promenade theatre piece, Order On The Go, which will see audiences moving around Kampong Gelam. Through this roving performance, Erwin hopes to make people more aware of their experiences, and calls for more empathy for these essential workers.

It began with an unpleasant encounter two years ago.

“I had ordered food to be delivered and I stood by my door waiting for the rider to come through the elevator. I wanted to make it easier for the rider so he didn’t have to look for my unit,” says Singapore theatremaker Erwin Shah Ismail.

Erwin’s neighbour, whom he didn’t know so well, had also ordered food. This was unsurprising, given how, in the past two years especially, we find ourselves increasingly working from home or adopting more hybrid work arrangements during the pandemic, and as a result, turn to food delivery options for its convenience. But what he saw surprised him.

“She stuck her hand out, almost violently grabbed the bag and then slammed the door. All this happened in under two seconds. Not a word was said. I felt sorry for the rider. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Gosh, these riders are human beings too. I know you paid for their service but you don’t need to be unkind to them.’”

This real-life experience was one of the starting points for his latest production, Order On The Go, a 45-minute promenade theatre experience around Kampong Gelam that brings to life a collection of stories about food delivery workers in Singapore. It runs from 16 to 27 March 2022. In this roving theatre production, which starts at Aliwal Arts Centre, audiences are invited to adopt the roles of customers waiting for their orders, giving them a peek into what goes on behind the scenes as frontline workers toil tirelessly to bring fresh meals to their homes – rain or shine.

Photo: Crispi Photography

While much has been written in the media about riders and the booming delivery platform industry, Erwin was more interested in the “lesser told details about these riders” – stories that we may have taken for granted or simply overlooked, especially prior to the different stages of pandemic regulations in Singapore.

Through Order On the Go, which is his second piece after writing and performing Kulit On The Go, a piece about the leather goods industry commissioned by Teater Ekamatra for Projek Suitcase in 2016, Erwin is drawing on various research methods – from working off articles and fact sheets, to Youtube videos, down to interviews he’s done with food delivery riders. He aims to present this community with utmost respect and care, even incorporating the environment around Kampong Glam into the experience.

“When we were given the venue and location, we had to answer a few questions of intent to our objective. Questions we would apply to any location for that matter. Where would the rider rest or have his breaks? Where would he go to buy his meals or refreshments? What are the common delivery pick-up points in his area? And, what do these places mean to him?”

Erwin, who is a familiar face in Singapore theatre – last seen on stage in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) – wrote Order On The Go and will be its solo performer leading audiences on their journey. The show sees Erwin working in collaboration with The Entity (Woo Hsia Ling) as the producer, and theatremakers such as director Cherilyn Woo, lighting and spatial designer Petrina Dawn Tan and sound designer Ctrl Fre@k (Lee Yew Jin), making the experience come alive for the audience.

Erwin admits that it is challenging to be both actor and playwright for the show.

“It was impossible for me to detach myself from the actor as I write these stories because I am mentally rehearsing the show and creating endless choices. It took me some time to negotiate that and entrust the rehearsal process to my director, Cherilyn Woo, who I am extremely excited to collaborate with,” he says.

Photo: Crispi Photography

While he has never worked for official food delivery platforms such as GrabFood or Foodpanda, he did help out with food distribution for charity during Ramadan in 2020 and 2021, delivering cooked meals to three homes every day on bicycle – “the same three homes for the whole month,” he recalls. During that time, he realised how important the service was to the people receiving the meals.

“Some of them were wheelchair-bound, for example,” he says. These stories are the ones we tend to forget to tell. This, of course, also highlights the necessity of the many services food delivery workers and other frontline workers provide, and also places an added responsibility on them.

Erwin says: “There were several days in that month when it rained and I still did my best to reach before it was time to break fast. I had to make sure that I got home in time to break my fast with my wife as well.”

As the world enters into cycles of healing and hurting from the past two years of global upheaval, shows like Order On The Go call for a reawakening of empathy in the way we treat the people whose services we are so dependent on, but who are as equally dependent on us for compassion and understanding.

“Now whenever it rains, should I make a food delivery order, I naturally become more patient and tip these riders for their hard work because I know how dangerous it is to cycle on these wet roads or pavements. All these thought processes contributed to the focus of Order On The Go.”

Order On The Go, written and performed* by Erwin Shah Ismail, runs from Wed-Sun over two weeks: 16-20 and 23-27 March 2022 at 7.15pm and 9pm. The starting point is Aliwal Arts Centre. Each session runs for 45 minutes. Tickets cost $25. Tickets here.

*Shows on 18 March will be performed by Al-Matin Yatim. 

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About the author(s)

Cheryl is a multi-disciplinary performance and visual artist based in Singapore, with a background in theatre and performance. She creates experiential and experimental works across various mediums especially inspired by astronomy, astrophysics, spiritual ecology, and the natural world. She also trains in circus arts and acrobatics.

Current artistic and research projects include exploring exploring the concept of Time and all its possibilities on a cosmic scale and the relationship we have with it as human beings, Hawaiian and Polynesian traditions of sea voyages and wayfinding by reading the stars, as well as how personal journeys with spiritual and deep ecology can be expressed through art. Past projects have explored death, trauma, and the afterlife, Southeast Asian folklore and the supernatural, and Buddhist philosophy on mortality and death, temporality, and impermanence.

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